Friday, June 24, 2005

the druid (1993)

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i had never met a druid, nor ever expected to meet one, but all of a sudden in the summer of last year (1992) i met three. the first came in the form of a letter that was ‘ channelled,‘ a modern version of conjouring up the spirit of a dead person. the letter was in response to an article i had written in the irish ‘ common ground ‘ magazine and began : ‘ dear friend, this is a very difficult letter for me to write, as i have been prompted to write it by someone who died in a d 710 and who at present is involved in guiding me . . .’ this was not a road that i particularly wanted to go down.
the second was more substantial, a chance meeting with an actual member of o b o d - the british order of bards, ovates, and druids. like most people i had been vaguely aware of pictures of white robed figures at stonehenge celebrating the summer solstice, but i had never met a member of any such order. this druid was young, and wore jeans, and drank lager out of the can. he was a normal human being, in other words, and perfectly sane and pleasant to talk to - but what else would you expect ?
the encounter with the third druid was completely unexpected. we were living in the old house - this was some two years before the fire - and i simply got word that there was someone to see me down in the old basement kitchen. the man was an elderly bachelor farmer from the far side of the village and he had come to see me because of an item that had appeared in the tipperary star, the local weekly newspaper. this article had somehow given him the impression that there were people in this house sympathetic towards the unusual, or at least, not instantly dismissive.
the conversation was tentative at first, and went around in circles. i realised afterwards that he was being very cautious in case i ridiculed his story. i, in my turn, was wary in case someone was having an elaborate leg pull, or trying something on. it was like a conversation between two psychiatrists, each of whom had been warned in advance that the other one might be a complete lunatic!
slowly, bit by bit, mutual confidence was established. he produced a crumpled photocopied page of an obscure book. when i was able, without getting out of my chair in the corner of the kitchen, to reach down the same book from the shelf beside me, he was astonished that i had not only read it but owned it.

over the course of this, and a subsequent evening, his story unfolded.

his own father had handed down to him a blessing. ( at this stage of the conversation the word ‘ druid ‘ was not mentioned.) he was now himself of advanced years and in uncertain health. his nearest relation was a nephew who had emigrated to england and qualified as an engineer, and had no interest whatsoever in ‘ pishogues and superstiton.’ he now felt that if he did not hand his knowledge on, there was a danger that one day quite soon it would die with him.
i listened carefully and critically to what he had to say. he seemed to have read a little about druidry and pre christian religion, but i belonged to the same library and could almost pick out in my mind the books that were the sources of his information. this i disregarded. what fascinated me was the knowledge that seemed to have come down to him through the direct male line of his family, once the mac giollapadraigs, lords of lower ossory. i had assumed that if there were a surviving druidic tradition in ireland, then it would have been uncovered by nineteenth or twentieth century folklorists, and i would thus have come across it in the course of my reading. but my informant claimed that ‘ the folklore ‘- as he called the folklore commission surveys made in his own time - was censored. not censored by officialdom, but instinctively censored by the sources themselves, to eliminate anything that might prove unwelcome or unpalatable to the priests in their particular parishes. this may be so. even if the collectors themselves were scholars of the highest integrity, one can imagine certain bits of information being held back by their wary informants.
my druid himself was like a partridge in a ploughed field, hard enough to spot when you were looking straight at him, and impossible for anyone who did not suspect he was there.

by the time that the question of the survival of the blessing was mentioned, i already knew that we would agree to it, if offered.

this is what happened.

on the eve of saint patrick’s day, my new friend drove over with a hazel stick, about twenty four inches in length and cut precisely at sunset ( as defined by the current irish edition of ‘ old moore’s almanac.) this was to be left overnight placed across a saucepan of water in which were two, already prepared, hard boiled brown eggs. we did this out in the tower, which at this time was bare and unlived in. he commented in passing that originally and ideally the eggs should have been ‘ red ‘ in colour. he also seemed to think that the original date of the ritual was not saint patrick’s eve but some other. i myself suspected the vernal equinox, or a saint patrick’s day that was decided by the phase of the moon, not just by a calendar date. i took it for granted that saint patrick’s day, and also the saint’s favourite shamrock trefoil symbol, were centuries older than the time of the saint himself.
my friend, having established at what time i, and he, would go to mass the following morning, went home satisfied. no one - man, woman, child or animal, - was on any account to disturb the position of the hazel wand in the meantime.

the next morning, all the members of the household who were at home at the time, gathered around the still glowing turf fire, and all who wished to participate were blessed as follows -
the left arm was bared by rolling up the sleeve almost to the shoulder, and a blessing was made in the name of the triune god. the blessing was performed with the hazel rod, first heated in the embers of the open fire - which was glowing red, as he had instructed, but not in flames - then quenched in the water which contained the two ‘ red ‘ eggs. a cross was marked in three places, in a triangle as it were, on the upper arm. the blessing was in the name of the father god, the mother goddess, and the son god. as i write i can still hear his voice, self deprecating, apologetic almost, and yet full of conviction and dignity.
the gods were named as, first, the father god, lugh ( the son god ), and then brigante. ( brigid, the goddess.) even so there was a hesitation in his voice as it pronounced the names, as if to say in parenthesis - ‘the son god ( whom some call lugh.) and the mother spirit ( whom some call brigante.)’
as one who knew the theological pedigree and antecedents of the holy spirit, i felt in no way uncomfortable with this arrangement.
the blessing went on to repeat the formula, but this time the thin black charcoal lines went around the wrist. the hazel wand, repeatedly heated in the embers of the fire and plunged into the pan of water, left three black rings. the first for the father, clockwise, the last, for the son, also clockwise, and the middle one, anti clockwise this time, for the goddess.
the whole process was repeated for each of three adults present, and for two children who wished to be ‘ done ‘ while two others did not.
at this point one of the adults present took our friend by the hand and gave him, in gratitude, a kiss. he stepped back in some agitation and said ‘ you must not kiss the druid ! ‘ at no point up until then had he used this word and most definitely not in relation to himself.
what seemed perfectly natural about this saint patrick’s day morning was that he and i then went our separate ways, but each to mass. how did i feel ? i cannot speak for the others, but i felt blessed. how do you feel after a blessing ?
- and what would the catholic church think about it ? not much. but the beliefs of the pre christian druids did not at first clash, but blended smoothly with the incoming christian beliefs, when they came together to form the early and unofficial ‘ celtic church.’
- and what was the significance of this fragmentary ritual handed down by the mac giollapadraigs ? his father’s incantation that went with it might have told us, but that, whether in irish or english, had unfortunately been lost. he could remember nothing of it.

to the modern romantic and revivalist druids, such men are known as ‘ druids of location.’

i very much doubt if i had the extreme good fortune to encounter the last, - the penultimate ? - of the kind. somewhere out there among the trees and bogs, stones and wells, of ireland, there are surely more.
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